Dying in the digital age means leaving two worlds instead of one.
One is the physical world, where your body resides. The other is the online world, where your virtual self exists. When you die, your loved ones become responsible for both — yet they have very few tools to take proper care of the online “you.”
This is a growing problem nationally and in Oregon, as older citizens become more Internet-savvy and people of all ages conduct more of their personal and financial business online. Oregon lawmakers should be prepared to tackle this issue in 2015, with help from privacy advocates and estate attorneys: Our laws are ill-equipped to deal with the tricky reality of gaining access to others’ Facebook accounts, family photos stored in the cloud, and even password-protected phones.
Last week, a leading group of lawyers recommended that states adopt several proposals to make it easier for surviving family members and executors of estates to gain access to your digital assets when you die. This group, known as the Uniform Law Commission, says electronic documents should be treated much like paper documents in a file cabinet. In most cases, a surviving loved one or executor should get easy access without having to petition a judge or jump through months of hoops.
Same goes for photos and files that might be stored online: Unless the person specified otherwise in a will, trust or user opt-in agreement, that person’s digital assets should be as accessible as their physical property, the group says.
“Technology is creating these assets on a daily basis, and the law is woefully behind,” said former state lawmaker Lane Shetterly, an Oregon attorney who served on the workgroup that hammered out the recommendations. The group’s intent is to establish good public policy around better access, he explained, while also carving out ways for people to protect their online privacy, even in death.
“This is a balancing act,” Shetterly told The Oregonian editorial board on Tuesday.
Digital privacy is emerging as a hot topic for the 2015 legislative session, and dealing with the digital assets of a deceased person is likely to be part of the mix. Oregon lawmakers may be surprised to discover that many of the same Internet companies that seem awfully casual about users’ privacy are often the most reluctant to share account information with surviving loved ones, both because of company policies and competing federal laws.
Oregonians may find themselves debating surreal questions such as: How can we keep a virtual self out of legal purgatory? How should we define a good digital death?
This would have sounded like gibberish five years ago. Now, it’s a natural extension of living with our heads — and a good part of our souls — in the digital cloud.